English Language

How language can be used to obfuscate and manipulate the truth

Lisa Tran

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Go ahead and tilt your mobile the right way (portrait). The kool kids don't use landscape...

You may or may not be assessed on language manipulation as some schools may or may not conduct essay SACs for this AOS. However, even if you aren't assessed on language manipulation in this AOS, then you will definitely need to have a solid understanding of it for the end of year examinations!

First let's define what obfuscation and manipulation actually mean:

  • Obfuscate: "the obscuring of intended meaning in communication, making the message confusing, willfully ambiguous, or harder to understand."
  • Manipulation: "to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner."

So there you have it. Obfuscation and manipulation are intrinsically linked, however, as show above there is a subtle difference. Now, let's look at how these terms are portrayed in language.

Agentless Passives

This notion of obfuscation can be seen in syntactic structures, in particular in the agentless passive voice. For example, politicians or businesspeople love to use these sentence structures to hide the truth (confuse): "A decision has been made today to close the school down". Wait, WHO is closing the school down? However, it must be stated that sometimes agentless passives are used merely to show that the agent (subject) is irrelevant and is inferred from prior knowledge. For example: "Smoking is prohibited here". We don't need the agent here as it is assumed knowledge.

Agentless passives are characteristics of the impersonal style found mostly in academic, legal and bureaucratic writing. It can often by used to increase social distance while increasing greater authority and seriousness in a text. For example:

"Refuse and rubbish shall not be collected from the site or receptacles thereon before the hour of 8:00 am or after the hour of 6:00 pm of any day."

According to Randall Vandermey, 2009: "Avoid using the passive voice unethically to hide responsibility. For example, an instructor who says, 'Your assignments could not be graded because of scheduling difficulties,' might be trying to evade the truth: 'I did not finish grading your assignments because I was watching CSI."


Nominalisations (verb to noun) can also serve the purpose of obfuscation. Recall that nominalisations represent an abstract idea and not a concrete object. At their best, nominalisations represent intelligence and also allow authors to sum up large, complex ideas into a single word. For example, the word 'nominalisation' is itself a nominalisation! Therefore, this single word allows us to compress a complex idea (verb to noun) into a single word!

However, at their worst, they impede clear thinking!

According to Henry Hitchings of the New York Times in 2013: "It’s not just that nominalisation can sap the vitality of one’s speech or prose; it can also eliminate context and mask any sense of agency (remove the agent). Furthermore, it can make something that is nebulous or fuzzy seem stable, mechanical and precisely defined. Nominalisations give priority to actions rather than to the people responsible for them. Sometimes this is apt, perhaps because we don’t know who is responsible or because responsibility isn’t relevant. But often they conceal power relationships and reduce our sense of what’s truly involved in a transaction. As such, they are an instrument of manipulation, in politics and in business. They emphasize products and results, rather than the processes by which products and results are achieved."

For example, ‘The destablisation of the economy caused adverse effects”. In this example, ‘destablisation’ is an abstract idea; what exactly does this mean? Does this mean that businesses shut down? In this case, we’re not entirely sure. Likewise, this sentence doesn’t state WHO did this action, therefore it removes blame entirely from an entity and makes it is unclear.


Ah, euphemisms. We use these more often than one would think in our everyday lives!

A euphemism can be defined as follows: "A euphemism is a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant."

At their best, euphemisms allow users to negotiate social taboos and avoid the unpleasant awkwardness that follows when talking about these social taboos. They also allow us to save face.

For example, suppose your friend's grandfather just died and you said to him: "I am sorry to hear your grandfather passed away" vs "I am sorry to hear your grandfather died." Which one do you think is 'nicer' and more 'pleasant', while ensuring you come across as a compassionate human being?

However, at their worst, they can purposefully manipulate and confuse the audience so as to conceal the truth. In the late 80s and early 90s, George Carlin, famous social comedian, commented that euphemisms can be used unfairly to minimise appropriate attitudes towards serious issues.

For example, George had stated that 'shell shock' in WWI was a direct, clear and blunt term which did not conceal the harsh reality of mental trauma suffered by soldiers in WWI. However, as the years went on this term evolved to become more and more euphemistic. Nowadays, this very same term is called 'post-traumatic stress disorder'. Talk about confusion!

Can you think of other euphemisms that may obfsucate the truth?

Below is a hilarious video by social comedian George Carlin. This will make you laugh.

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